During the last two years, addition to my design work, I have been teaching lighting and video design at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama. It has been an amazing experience. I’ve been so lucky to work with the most extraordinary colleagues, and I have wonderful students.
Teaching has made me a better designer. In explaining what I think is most important as a designer, I have clarified those things again to myself. I don’t know if being a great designer is something that can entirely be taught, but a combination of guidance and teaching, along with providing opportunities for real-world experiences, can help students create a bridge to place their education in context.
I find one of the most interesting aspects of lighting design is finding how to convey a meaningful message through an abstract design form. Most of my work is for non-narrative performance; there is no script for a concert. That doesn’t mean the visual choices have no meaning. In good design, they always do, whether the audience will perceive them consciously or not. That substance will make the designs more powerful, compelling and successful. (And yes, we also still want it to look cool!)
As designers, we don’t focus on the individual steps in our design approach, but we usually work instinctually. Teaching what goes into building a good design requires breaking down a process we take for granted into steps and techniques. There is no recipe, but rather a process and approach. In showing students how to ask questions and be open to unexpected answers, we can help them create original work and bring it to fruition.
Along with design and technical fundamentals, I have focused on teaching my students the importance of collaboration and communication. Every bit as important as talent and skill is the ability to work well with other people. The best explanation I’ve heard yet from a student for less-than-perfect collaborative behavior? "Well, we did have some issues before tech. There was a thing with a girl, and he lit me on fire."
So why teach at all? It must sound terribly clichéd, but on the day when you feel you have made some difference to the future of one of your students, that is a very good day. This can happen in a lot of ways—when you see that a student suddenly understands something that didn’t make sense before or when something from class solves a design problem for a school production or when an introduction you have made opens the door to the professional world for a young designer starting out. A university is a place where you can take creative risks, and it’s okay if those ideas sometimes fail. Watching the students work this way has reminded me of the joy of working with creative ideas unbridled by real-world restraints.
The opportunity to watch faculty advise students has also helped me better understand the working process of the other disciplines. While advising, we are in the position to step back and observe a process in a way that wouldn’t be possible in the thick of things.
One advantage of taking students with me to projects is that they can get a vista into the speed at which high-stakes decisions need to be made and the collaborative way in which they have to happen. Designers need to have flexibility of their own ideas to support the overall project and, in time, learn that, from collaboration, something great and unexpected can take shape.
I’ve also learned that people in theatre are quite considerate and polite, or at least we teach students that they should be! When I took a student with me to rehearsals for a Martina McBride tour, I suddenly remembered that the music industry has a long tradition of verbal hazing as a means of showing affection. Welcome to the business!
Adding one more occupation to the mix is exactly as complicated as it sounds. Balance is important. In the end, I believe that healthy, rounded people make better artists.
Abigail Rosen Holmes’ designs span the disciplines of concert, television, special events, and corporate, including lighting, media, and production design. Credits include tours for The Cure, Cher, Janet Jackson, and Peter Gabriel, as well as lighting and video for Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.